Labour MPs are warning they face a growing challenge from a well-funded slate of independent candidates opposed to Keir Starmer’s position on the Israel-Gaza war, amid an increasingly coordinated campaign in the build-up to the next election.
With several MPs warning they continue to face anger over the party’s handling of its position on the Middle East, the Observer has been told that meetings have been taking place in recent days to identify, fund and champion a list of independent candidates to take on Labour MPs who failed to back an immediate ceasefire in a parliamentary vote last November.
The Bethnal Green and Bow seat in east London, held by the shadow business minister Rushanara Ali, is among the constituencies being discussed. An independent candidate has already been installed to stand against shadow health secretary Wes Streeting in Ilford North, with a major fundraising campaign already under way to back her.
One MP said that the funds being talked about were substantial and would cause concern among colleagues with large Muslim populations, as well as those with a significant share of voters willing to back a candidate to the left of Labour. It is understood a meeting about running rival candidates, which included potential financial backers, was held in London last week.
“People are talking to some independent candidates and donating serious amounts of money to help them run against the Labour party,” said one MP. “It’s astonishing – I’ve never known this level of funding and organisation. The anger is off the scale. We have to do so much to get those communities back on side. They want to teach the Labour party a lesson.”
Another MP who voted in favour of a ceasefire said: “There is a lot of anger. There is more organisation taking place than ever before – it’s not yet clear where that goes. It isn’t just the Muslim community. Liberal voters are also exercised about this. It isn’t necessarily that these candidates will win – but could they take important votes away?”
Labour MPs have already been alerted to a new website, themuslimvote.co.uk, which is directing Muslim voters to back a slate of locally approved candidates. It states it is “focused on seats where the Muslim vote can influence the outcome” and will not back anyone “who voted against or abstained on the ceasefire vote”. It already lists a series of backers, including NGOs, community groups and Muslim-run businesses.
Starmer initially refused to back a ceasefire last year, with Labour MPs told not to vote in favour of the SNP motion backing one. He also faced criticism for an interview in which he appeared to support Israel’s right to cut off power and water in Gaza. He later clarified this was not his view. Labour now supports a “sustainable ceasefire”, alongside the government.
Given Labour’s dominant position in the opinion polls overall, political analysts have said there is little chance of potential seats being lost following a collapse in support from Muslim communities. Real nervousness remains among individual Labour MPs, with reports of some being barred from events in their constituencies over demands for Labour to strengthen its support for Gaza.
The first test of the electoral impact of the issue will come later this month in the Rochdale byelection. George Galloway, the former Labour MP who previously secured a byelection victory in Bradford West in 2012, is running on a pro-Palestinian platform. While about one in three Rochdale voters is Muslim, Labour is widely expected to retain the seat.
Several figures, including Jess Phillips, resigned from the frontbench to back a ceasefire last year. There are now rumours that the SNP is planning to hold another vote on the issue in the coming weeks.
Some MPs appear to have changed their position in the wake of the original vote. John Cryer, the Leyton and Wanstead MP and chair of the parliamentary Labour party, did not back the SNP motion, but subsequently wrote to constituents saying “we should now be calling for a ceasefire”. Several concerned shadow ministers also attended a recent meeting with Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador in the UK.
Figures in Starmer’s shadow cabinet are under serious pressure locally. Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary and one of Labour’s most senior Muslim MPs, said this week that there had been “a loss of trust” in her party among British Muslims and called for Labour to rebuild it.
Some Labour MPs are already on edge after a recent poll suggested the party had lost more than a quarter of the Muslim voters that backed it at the last election. However, Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future thinktank, said that while Labour risks losing “significant numbers of Muslim voters”, it was unlikely to lose “even a handful of seats” as a result at the coming election.
“Labour is shielded from an immediate impact if they do gain three or four million voters nationally by being 10% up on the last general election,” he said. “The formative political experiences of young Muslim first-time voters may matter more in future general elections – if a Labour government becomes less popular in office than it is now in opposition, then it could become dangerous if it seems to take its diverse urban vote for granted.
“The general election challenge for independent candidates is that almost no Westminster constituencies could be won with an appeal to a single minority group. Even where half the voters are Muslim, there is never going to be a 100% community block vote, so it will take a cross-community alliance of voters to win a seat.
“The Muslim vote may matter most in 2024 where there are marginal seats with a large Muslim presence, such as in SNP-Labour marginals in Glasgow, or Conservative-held seats like Peterborough or Wycombe – not because they have the most Muslim voters but because minority votes can be the tipping point in a marginal seat.”